Commentary

Bryan Alexander: Gov. Scott’s broadband mistake

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Bryan Alexander, a futurist, researcher, writer, speaker, consultant and teacher from Ripton, who works in the field of how technology transforms education. In 2013 he launched Bryan Alexander Consulting, LLC. His two most recent books are “Gearing Up For Learning Beyond K-12” and “The New Digital Storytelling.”

Vermont’s new governor has given his first budget address. It is, among other things, bad news for our state’s broadband situation.

Our internet speeds tend to be low, which is typical for a rural American state. For several years Montpelier led a drive to raise broadband rates, funding multiple projects, but that petered out recently, leaving Vermont a patchwork of several broadband oases, some satellite-powered zones, and some speeds so slow as to fall below the FCC’s definition of “broadband.” Cellphone coverage is a connectivity option in parts of the U.S., but is a rare option here, given spotty coverage and, all too often, scant bars.

Improving rural broadband became a state election issue late in 2016. Candidate Sue Minter urged a general improvement. Then-candidate Phil Scott disagreed, arguing that it was too expensive and difficult a challenge for a financially challenged state to address.

Now as newly installed governor, Scott held fast to this belief, as shown in his 2017 budget address.

The speech’s theme was for general financial probity and restraint. No funds are to be increased for any crying need, from Lake Champlain cleanup to mitigating the opiate crisis. There is no room for investing in improving our state’s low bandwidth.

There is one exception to this point: a call for funds to be spent improving broadband speeds and technology in public schools: “With additional investments in innovation, modernization, and distance learning in our K-through-12 system, I hope to inspire fresh thinking in our classrooms, fund technology and training for school districts, and connect every school in Vermont with high-speed Internet access,” Scott said.

Low speeds cramp business development, disincentivize new businesses from investing in Vermont, and fail to attract young people who increasingly rely on broadband for most aspects of life.

 

This connects to specific curricular fields: “To promote more interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) – as well as traditional trades – I’ve proposed grants to support coding camps, and boost Career Technical Education programs,” Scott said.

This is a fine idea. Yet given that Gov. Scott also urged schools to cut spending, it’s not clear that boards will be able to fund that technological request. Aside from this measure, Vermont will continue to languish with lame broadband speeds.

Scott’s logic is that trimming or holding state spending steady will keep taxes from increasing, which will in turn encourage business growth, which then improves the state’s overall economy, including tax revenues. Unfortunately, this will not elicit internet connection improvements, as we now know that the market has stalled out across the state in providing better speeds. Indeed, weak broadband will harm our economy, as I’ve argued before, since low speeds cramp business development, disincentivize new businesses from investing in Vermont, and fail to attract young people who increasingly rely on broadband for most aspects of life.

We know from many examples worldwide that improving broadband boosts economic performance. Higher speeds give businesses access to more customers. They open the way for providing new services and goods. Start-ups often rely on high-speed internet to launch and grow.

Vermont’s broadband situation goes beyond the economy. High-speed access is vital for education, allowing students access to rich media content and to audio- and video-conference discussions with instructors and other learners. Faster speeds give us greater opportunities for sharing media about Vermont, such as photos and video of our gorgeous landscape and rich way of life, which encourages tourism. At the same time, broadband is a quality of life issue, as we increasingly use bandwidth-intensive applications to entertain ourselves and to stay in touch with friends and family.

Unfortunately, the Scott administration has chosen to refuse this positive path forward. The governor’s speech tells us that he has made peace with our problematic bandwidth, that he sees no need for internet-fueled growth in economics, education or life. He apparently would have us sit out the digital revolution, losing a fine possibility to restart Vermont’s economic engine. As our state’s demographics age, the governor is unwilling to invest in attracting young people, even though he spoke to a drop in our working age population in this very speech. Scott would like to “turn … Vermont into an education destination for families,” but without investing in the required infrastructure.

Some, like Bill “Spaceman” Lee, argue that Vermont should resist the distractions of an always-on digital existence. They see our state as a refuge from shallow entertainment, fake news and digital exhaustion. This argument doesn’t actually apply to us. To begin with, Vermont’s speeds are so low, connections so spotty, and actual use of technology relatively rare, that we are not in danger of losing our connection to the natural world anytime soon. Moreover, neither the governor nor his administration has made this kind of cultural argument. Instead, the decision to not invest in broadband is, as far as we can discern, a financial one.

That decision will be seen as a historic mistake. I urge Gov. Scott to reconsider. We need to invest in broadband, especially for Vermont’s small towns. If he truly wants to grow our economy, this is a no-brainer. Failing to boost our connection to the world – to the future – will end up costing us dearly.

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  • Anne Dickerson

    The government should tell us how much this would actually cost. I probably missed it but it would be nice to easy for all of us to have a lot of access to it. VT does seem to be quite behind the times.

    How many people does this really effect?

    Please tell us how many actually places in VT are experiencing this broadband issue .

    Where are these places where there would actually be new businesses. If none then what’s the big deal?

    If you can get cell phone service can you also get broadband through your cell phone? I think so. Or maybe through a satellite dish service. I’m really not too familiar with this kind of service but I think it can be done. Maybe this could be explored.

    • bryanalexander

      Good questions, Anne.
      I believe there have been questions about cost and transparency for some time.

      How many people, and where: here’s a good mapping site, http://broadbandnow.com/Vermont . The state published others.
      In short, a lot of Vermonters, once you leave Chittenden county and downtown Rutland.

      “Where are these places where there would actually be new businesses”: anywhere, potentially. Adding broadband to areas usually brings forth new businesses, according to the experience of many nations.

      “If you can get cell phone service can you also get broadband through your cell phone?” You could, *if* you have coverage (which is spotty in our state) and *if* the speeds are good enough (also a problem).

      “Or maybe through a satellite dish service.” Not a good option right now. Speeds are slow. Service gets knocked out by weather. You get a data cap which limits your use. And latency – the delay is takes for, say, a web page to load – can be a killer.

      Good questions.

      • Marie DiCocco

        Unfortunately, that mapping site doesn’t really let you drill down to see the true detail. We live 5 miles from the statehouse, 1/2 mile off route 2 (so while rural, certainly not in the boondocks), yet the only choice we have is Fairpoint DSL at the blinding fast speed of 1.5Mb. Yet when I put in my zipcode (which we share with Montpelier), it shows a whole list of providers (which are not available to us) and speeds much faster. As a matter of fact, it shows Fairpoint at 99% availability, but what we have is just barely above dialup speeds. At times, our cellular connections can work as hotspots, but even that’s not reliable. We can go from having LTE speeds to having no service in a matter of seconds.

        • bryanalexander
          • Marie DiCocco

            Sure did. It does show Fairpoint DSL at 1.5 Mb which is what we have, but also shows Comcast at 10-25 Mb, which I can assure you is not available to us. Our road has 7 houses on it and even the houses that are right along route 2 at the end of our road can’t get Comcast. We don’t have enough density. There is actually a small group of us in Middlesex who are looking into the possibility of setting up our own fiber because it seems to be the only solution for us.

          • bryanalexander

            That’s one solution.
            Our town built a wireless network, using North Branch Networks.
            Is there a role for the state to help you in Middlesex?

  • bob Zeliff

    Right ON!!! If Vermont want to grow new business it must offer competitive broad band. We don’t evan have the min 30mhz the FCC defines as broad band in MOST of the state let alone the 100mhz or more that most growing business areas demand. The future will demand higher rates as cloud computing becomes more pervasive.
    Scott’s decision will keep most of us Vermonters frozen in the digital past.

    • bryanalexander

      Exactly.
      And we know this. This isn’t rarefied, geeky knowledge.
      Have we decided, as a state, to not grow broadband?

      • Matthew Davis

        I don’t personally think that as a state we have decided to not grow broadband, but I do think there is a pretty significant cross section of the population that would be happier if VT never changed. In fact some would be happy if we could return to the pre-digital age VT. Let’s face it, VT is an old state (age of population) and for many older VTers this is likely not a huge priority. We need to move the conversation about this and many other issues beyond not expanding the burden on tax payers to how to generate more tax revenue and broaden and diversify the state’s economic development. To me, expanding broadband is a no-brainer, and clearly I am not the only one that thinks this but how do we convince others that investment both by public and private entities is an important aspect of economic development?

        • bryanalexander

          That “pretty significant cross section” has, apparently, a lot of weight, and their counterweight is relatively flimsy.

          “how to generate more tax revenue and broaden and diversify the state’s economic development” – that’s the argument I and others have been using for at least a decade. It’s not working. People are not seeing the equation, even though it’s well known.

    • Matt Fisken

      Mhz = Megahertz = frequency
      Mbs = Mbits/sec = speed

  • Scott Woodward

    A few points that are not taken into account by the author:

    1.) The Vermont Universal Service Fund continues to provide funding for basic broadband coverage, particularly related to E-911 and public safety. This funding source continues, though it certainly does not get us all the way there.

    2.) The 2014 Telecommunications Plan needs to be updated before deciding on investments. There are hundreds of millions of dollars in required investments in that plan, but there’s no consensus on which cost estimates are prefered (see pp. 71-78 of the current plan). A new plan needs to be developed before choosing a path for what and how much investment to make. http://publicservice.vermont.gov/sites/dps/files/documents/Pubs_Plans_Reports/State_Plans/Telecom_Plan/VT%20Telecom%20Plan%202014.pdf

    3.) There are a host of public/private partnerships out that are doing wonderful things for broadband access and quality, EC Fiber among them. EC Fiber is a bootstrap financial model that leverages private capital to build the infrastructure. Having EC Fiber has been the difference between me being able to live where I do and remain productive. It’s a model to replicate.

    • bryanalexander

      Greetings, Scott, and thank you for weighing in.
      I had much, much more to say, but limited space, so.

      1) Definitely – definitely that it continues, and that it isn’t boosting rural broadband. Don’t forget how Fairpoint fouled up 911 several times.
      2) Certainly. That’s the kind of leadership move a governor, especially a new one, can make.
      3) EC Fiber is excellent, and we seriously consider moving to its zone. But recall that they are strictly limited to a small number of towns, and can’t expand.
      The governor *could* call for more of these, right? But the budget speech was silent on this score.

      • Scott Woodward

        Bryan,

        I agree there’s an opportunity to lead, but if I were in the Governor’s shoes, I would first want to have a solid plan before vocalizing specific investments that could cost many tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. Drafting a new Telecommunications Plan will take time and many conversations with a lot of stakeholders to develop (just as the DPS did with the Comprehensive Energy Plan).

        Broadband access is an issue that goes back years and administrations and it’s certainly not going to get solved overnight. BTW, the Governor did offer his thoughts on broadband during the campaign which are encapsulated in his economic development plan (pp. 19-20), so it may be helpful to look at that to get a sense of where this issues lies in terms of priorities. Like your commentary, a budget address can’t possibly say all there is that needs to be said.

        • bryanalexander

          Then he could lead the formulation of such a plan *now*. He’s not.

          Nobody’s calling for universal broadband to be “solved overnight.” But it *can* be addressed; governor Scott has decided not to.

          It’s not just his address. I asked him about this on the campaign trail last year. By email and by video he repeatedly stated he wasn’t going to push for rural broadband. Instead, he wants to let the market take care of it… while the market has failed.

          If you’d like us to consult his plan, is it available online? Can you link to it?

          • Scott Woodward

            Bryan, do you have ideas of your own about what should be done both near and long-term? Do you imagine government should take the full responsibility (and cost) for building out the infrastructure? Why do you think the market has failed? Regulatory oversight? Lack of funding?

            http://www.philscott.org/news/phils-final-economic-plan/

          • bryanalexander

            Scott, I’m going to assume you haven’t read anything I’ve written or said on this subject.
            To save time, here are relevant blog posts, which include links to articles published elsewhere: https://bryanalexander.org/tag/fairpoint/

            “Why do you think the market has failed?”
            Great question. And know that this isn’t just a Vermont problem. The rural-urban gap is the deepest digital divide across the US.
            One argument is that America is unusually large, and often has challenging terrain – i.e., the solutions working in London or Helsinki don’t apply well here.
            Another is that while we have a theoretically competitive marketplace, in reality we all too often have monopolies, especially in practice. Monopolies are, generally speaking, more expensive and less responsive to customer needs.
            A third points to the details of regulation, such as the 1996 TelCo Act.
            A fourth argues that the broadband field is too private, that America has a history of using state power to bring forth serious infrastructure. Example of this include railroads (massive federal role), radio (feds restructured that technological revolution in the early 1930s), and rural electrification.

            “do you have ideas of your own” – What else could be done? So many things. For example,
            …Rolling out more EC Fibers across other towns in the state
            …Renegotiating with major ISPs (Comcast, Fairpoint) to get them to expand offerings (a long shot, but worth attempting)
            …Developing public broadband access options for anchor institutions, like schools, libraries, and hospitals. Some already do this, notably public libraries.
            …Supporting local ISPs and connectivity projects, helping them get off the ground and grow. I’ve written before about a local example, North Branch Networks.
            …Partnering with companies like Actelis, who have successfully deployed technologies to speed up slow connections
            …” ” Facebook and Google to bring their innovate resources to bear
            …Support experiments with mesh networks to see about extending the reach of fast connections

            And more. There are plenty of projects around the world. Ditto people studying this.

          • Scott Woodward

            Bryan, the 2014 Telecommunications Plan is due to be updated this year, as required by statute, 30 V.S.A. § 202d, which states:

            “In establishing plans, public hearings shall be held and the Department shall consult with members of the public, representatives of telecommunications utilities with a certificate of public good, other providers, including the Vermont Electric Power Co., Inc. (VELCO), and other interested State agencies, particularly the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, the Agency of Transportation, and the Department of Innovation and Information, whose views shall be considered in preparation of the Plan. To the extent necessary, the Department shall include in the Plan surveys to determine existing, needed, and desirable plant improvements and extensions, access and coordination between telecommunications providers, methods of operations, and any change that will produce better service or reduce costs. To this end, the Department may require the submission of data by each company subject to supervision by the Public Service Board.”

            http://legislature.vermont.gov/statutes/section/30/005/00202d

            As you can read from the statute, it’s obviously a lengthy process and will probably take the better part of the year to gather the information and write the plan. Hope you’ll participate in the drafting process with your input.

          • bryanalexander

            Scott, I wasn’t asking about that plan, but about what you mentioned:
            “[the Governor’s] economic development plan (pp. 19-20)”

            I would be happy to contribute to that process.

      • IrvThomae

        About #3: It is not strictly true that ECFiber is strictly limited and cannot expand. Under the law, any Communications Union District *can* accept new member towns by vote of its Governing Board. Speaking as that board’s Chair, that is indeed unlikely to happen until every currently underserved location in our 24 member towns has access to real broadband. But any two or more towns can vote to form a new CUD, and we’re happy to discuss what *didn’t* work for us as well as what did.

  • John Zuppa

    I supported Gov. Scott….But…Not on this issue…

    If he does not see the NEED and the incredible opportunities broadband expansion has for rural Vermonters…Then something is clouding his vision…

    One example (and there are others in our area) is here in Island Pond…because of the lucky circumstance of being close enough to High Speed Broadband…this resident has been putting books together (as in Graphic Design and Typesetting) on-line for Yale and Harvard University Press…

    e-Commuting is a wonderful job area to explore…(It also means less car travel, less pollution)

    • bryanalexander

      Imagine having many more examples of this.
      Vermont could be a leading destination for telecommuters.